Washington is a city which, regardless of who happens to be in power, has always been fairly conservative in its architectural choices, both for public and private spaces. Government buildings tend to be either classical, or utilitarian. Office complexes, due to building height restrictions, are often little more than what has come to be known as the K Street box. And while the odd heiress might build some extravagant home for herself, the residence will generally follow universally acceptable ideas of what a mansion ought to look like.
The city’s planning authorities are also notoriously difficult to deal with, because there are often many layers of bureaucracy one must wade through in order to obtain the proper permits. Just because you happen to get your proposal over one hurdle does not necessarily mean you will clear the next; the local neighborhood council and the National Capital Planning Commission may love your design, but the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts may send you back to the drawing board. It is not a surprise, given the local architectural climate and the often-complicated process required to get something built, that it has taken until now for a fashionable architect such as Frank Gehry to get something approved, awful as it may be.
In the early part of the 20th century, when matters were a bit looser and historic preservation was not yet fully a part of the national consciousness, it might in theory have been easier to be a trendy architect in D.C., except for the fact that Congress had vastly greater powers of control over the District. Congress, at least at that time, was not prone to come under the influence of hipsters. As a result, unlike in other major American cities, Washington does not have a great deal of good Art Nouveau or Art Deco architecture.
Truthfully, Art Nouveau was never quite as popular in the U.S. as it was in European cities such as Barcelona, Vienna, Paris, and Prague. Art Deco however, is an important element of style in many places, such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Miami. One can hardly imagine the streetscapes and neighborhoods of such places as Midtown Manhattan or South Beach without the very distinctive lines and curves of the Art Deco period.
However, there are a few Art Deco gems dotting the Washington landscape, and not surprisingly many of these tend to have been created for industrial uses. One of the best examples of this is the old Hecht’s Warehouse on New York Avenue, in the N.E. quadrant of the city. Today the Washington Business Journal is reporting that the site has fallen victim to the mortgage crisis, much as Georgetown Park and other proposed developments or redevelopments in the city have done, leaving the future of this very pleasing building uncertain.
Another late Art Deco structure a bit closer to home for the Courtier is the West Heating Plant, located on 29th Street NW in Georgetown near the Four Seasons Hotel. This federally-owned building was designed by William Dewey Foster, and constructed between 1946-1948; it was dedicated by President Truman upon completion and is now a National Historic Landmark. It stands like a great curving monolith of brick and glass near where the C&O Canal empties into the Potomac River at Georgetown Harbor.
There have been rumors that the Feds intend to sell or raze the building at some point, and over the years the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission has gone back and forth about advocating the removal of the plant. It would be hard to imagine that a Federally-designated historic structure would be torn down voluntarily for the sake of increased parkland. Certainly its outbuildings could go, and the main building remain, giving us not only more green space but also an interesting structure to work with.
Although the plant is rather incongruous both in style and scale with Georgetown’s mass of Federal and Victorian buildings, its location in the old industrial district and its (to my eye) very pleasing but simple exterior lines mean that it does not dominate the entire village. Perhaps when it comes to the end of its useful life, the government will consider turning it to a purpose for which grand old power plants such as this seem eminently suitable: a modern and contemporary art gallery. And by-the-by, the Courtier would love to have a tour of the interior at some point, should any of his readers know the powers that be at the GSA.